Kyoto in the rain…and crashing a funeral?

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The first touches of color on leaves near the Choin-in Temple gate

Although Typhoon Malakas wasn’t a dangerous storm by the time it reached Kyoto, its effects lingered. For the first two days of our stay in Kyoto, it seemed we’d fallen into some bad travel mojo: Google let us down a couple of times, leaving us searching for bus stops it insisted were right under our feet… and always, just then, the skies would open up. So much for beautiful autumn in Kyoto! Not willing to quit, though, we kept on and discovered that one benefit of the rain was a decided lack of the crowds we’d been told to expect. I’m a sucker for a silver lining! read more

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair! read more

Off the ship: Tokyo and a favorite boat ride to Asakusa

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Nijubashi Bridge at the Imperial Palace

As David likes to describe it, after 15 days on a ship, we’re like a couple of baby birds kicked out of the nest when we land: What?! We have to figure out where to eat on our own?? Kind of pathetic. Despite the initial adjustment, we were more than ready for some time ashore on our own. Cruises are fun, but it was time to dig in a bit deeper.

We lucked into sunny skies our first day in Tokyo, the only real weather problem being a bit too much heat and a haze that made tower viewing of Mt. Fuji a nonstarter. We spent the first night onboard, so only baby steps required: taking a train from Shinagawa station (the station nearest the industrial port where the ship berthed the first night before moving to the nicer Yokohama cruise port). The ship shuttled us to Shinagawa, so all we had to do was catch a train to Tokyo Station. Easy, right?…Except for the total lack of English on the signage. Thankfully, helpful young ladies in uniform are stationed throughout area train stations and we were soon on our way. read more

Hakodate, Japan – Trying out a bargain tour guide

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I arranged a private guide in Hakodate through the Hakodate Goodwill Association. http://www.hakodategoodwill.com/indexeng.html The Association offers tours for up to 6 people on a pre-arranged basis for an unbelievable 3000 yen total ($29.41) plus any expenses of the guide which was explained to be a day-pass for the tram (600 yen or $5.88) and maybe some entrance fees, although those might be free for the guide. How could I resist?

A few weeks before our departure, I posted on our Cruise Critic roll call and 4 shipmates quickly jumped on this deal. In about a week, I got an email response to my online application to the Hakodate Goodwill Association from a local named Kensuke (“Ken”) who agreed to be our guide. He responded promptly to my few email questions about payment and again the day before we arrived in Hakodate to give me a weather forecast and assure me he would meet our shuttle bus from the ship. read more

Otaru, Japan – The Carmel of northern Japan?

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Rickshaw in passing mode, Otaru

I was totally charmed by Otaru. The old buildings of Sakaimachihondori Street, the main shopping area, are almost achingly picturesque…reminding me, in some ways, of a Japanese Carmel. We began our explore of the area at the Otaru Music Box Museum in a 3-story wooden building across from the towered post office. The “museum” is really more of a large souvenir shop selling every kind of music box imaginable. A tall clock outside the music box museum surprised us when it blew the half-hour on a train-like whistle, emitting a gray puff of smoke. read more

Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands), Alaska

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The first stop on our trans-Pacific Vancouver-to-Tokyo cruise was Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was a substitute stop, replacing the originally-scheduled Petropavlosk, Russia, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. I’d been really looking forward to the remote Russian stop and, while I was disappointed to miss the Kamchatka, Dutch Harbor was a happy surprise for me, personally. My grandfather (my father’s father) had been stationed there in WWII as a Navy dentist. My dad still has a scrapbook of his father’s from that time and I’d taken a photo of every page, eager to see if I could find anything recognizable in this remote port. read more

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Wish granted!

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I spent nearly two weeks in Croatia with my sons years ago and the place I’d always regretted missing was Plitvice National Park. As far as I was concerned, Plitvice was #1 on my list for this Croatian vacation with David and now, as our trip neared an end, we were finally going to be there…and it was storming. Not just light rain, but a downpour. Aaargh!

The weather in Zadar had been overcast with occasional drizzle, but cleared to sunny the morning we set out on the drive to Plitvice. It’s an easy 2-hour drive from Zadar to Plitvice and the scenery is beautiful as you head into the mountains and cross over impressive bridges spanning wide inlets of water. read more

Roman amphitheater at Solin, Croatia

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On our way back from Krka to Split, we made a short detour to visit the ruins of a Roman amphitheater in Solin, a small town on the outskirts of Split. With no address to go by, I guessed at street names hinting at an amphitheater or forum…which resulted in quite a few wrong turns on narrow streets. For anyone preferring a more direct route (which should be everyone), the amphitheater is at the intersection of Put Salone and Paraci ulica (“ulica” being simply Croation for street). The path is neither well-marked nor straightforward due to the way streets are set up, dead ends and the like. The ruins do show up on Google Maps now, so go with that if you have access. read more

Krka Park, Croatia–walking on water

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Krka Park pathway

The waterfalls, lakes, rivers and pathways of Krka Park lure visitors from Croatia and beyond. We got up early to start our daytrip to Krka, hoping to avoid the crowds we’d heard could be a problem. The park lies an easy hour’s drive from Split. We drove the vast majority of the way on the excellent A1/E65 highway, then followed signs (and Google Maps) along the equally well-maintained E33 to the park’s main entrance at Lozovac. The enormous parking lot was mostly empty, but cars and tour buses were already beginning to arrive. We bought entrance tickets at the booth in the parking lot then realized we’d just missed the free shuttle bus that takes visitors into the park. [The free shuttle service runs from April to October.] Unwilling to wait for the bus to return, we opted to hike instead downhill through thick forests. The walk is pretty and not overly-difficult for the fit, but views of the lake below are blocked and we actually saw more of that particular vista by riding the bus back to the parking lot at the end of our visit. Our hike deposited us just up the road from the bus drop-off. read more

Split, Croatia: Old Town, Diocletian’s palace & Marjan Park

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Split had been a favorite of my boys and mine on that first visit to Croatia 13 years ago, and I was excited to return with David. It’s a fascinating place: a medieval city built into and incorporating the ruins of Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace. Happily, Split proved to be one of those places that’s just as good the second time around.

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Narodni Trg (National Square) in Split

As with Dubrovnik, tourism has boomed in Split in recent years and cruise ships periodically dump large crowds on the city, but Split managed to retain the charm I remembered in spite of it all. It’s popular with Croatians from surrounding areas as well and the cafés were filled on sunny weekend days. We ran into our young guide from the Winery Miloš with a girlfriend one evening and caught up with the status of the wine competition in the US. There’s always a kick to actually recognizing a familiar face in a foreign city. read more